Manila (Part 3)- Live Richer, While Spending Less by Retiring Early in the Philippines


This is Part 3 of 4 of the Ultimate Retirement Guide to Manila, Philippines. Click the rewind icon to read Part 2. 



Food Summary- The quickest way to burn through your retirement budget is going out to restaurants and clubs and spending on pricey imported alcohol and international foods.

Both are disproportionately expensive in Manila. Purchasing fresh local veggies and cooking at home, eating out at more causal or even local restaurants, and cutting back on going out on the weekends will result in a much much much smaller monthly expense. Part 3 of the Ultimate Retirement Guide to Manila provides real life examples of both the High-End dining and Budget eats.

1) Food Shopping- Cooking for yourself in Manila can sometimes be more expensive than eating out.

Wet/Farmers Markets:
I mentioned the hip, but well-organized and pricier weekend markets- Salcedo Saturday Market and Legazpi Sunday Market in Part 1. These weekend markets focus on organic fruit and vegetable shopping while having tasty street food ready to eat. Both these markets are like hipster Farmers Markets in the US, and I have no problem recommending them for veggies or prepared meals. These markets will same you some money over the supermarkets, but to really shop like a local, you’ll need to brave some of the wet and dry markets in the area.

Be warned, these are open-air markets, not scrubbed and sanitized Western supermarkets. These markets feed thousands of local families, so I generally considered them safe, though their dirty appearance and smell can seem otherwise. Visiting the markets are an experience in themselves, but not for someone overly concerned with sterilization and appearance. Also, if you are an expat, you are unlikely to be offered the best price. Your best bet is to send your driver or maid with a shopping list and have them pick the best fruits and vegetables and bargain with the vendors. 

S & R:
S & R is the Filipino version of Costco, complete with 100% all-beef hot dogs and a drink on sale for ~$2. It’s my favorite place to stock up on imported things that I miss from the US: your favorite snack chips, imported whiskey, Australian ribeye steaks, etc. It’s a warehouse club with discounted goods bought in bulk.

Grocery Stores:
SM Hypermart- 
A Western-style supermarket that would not seem out of place in any town in the US. The pricing will be cheaper than the US for essential goods (soaps, local produce, toothbrushes, bread, etc.), but expect to pay for anything gourmet or imported. If you want the best imported extra sharp cheddar cheese for your Taco Tuesday night, it will cost you more than what you pay in MCOL city in the US. Out of pure convenience, this will likely be where you do the bulk of your grocery shopping.

High-End Stores:
If SM Hypermart is similar to the standard supermarket in the US, then Rustans is the Filipino Whole Foods. Definitively catering to the upmarket and discerning clientele, Rustans stocks the best products in the country and from abroad. Expats consider this the best supermarket Manila with the best quality meats and an extensive imported section if you're looking for some imported ingredients or exotic spices. Rustans is where you go if you are looking for truffle-infused oils from Italy for your risotto or a pinch of saffron for your paella.

Especially if your last shopping experience was one of the wet markets I mentioned in the section above, walking into Rustans is like taking a stroll in my old Hipster Neighborhood Whole Foods in the US. The interiors are spacious, brightly lit, well organized, and scrubbed to a reflective and clean polish. Light jazz plays in the background, while I cruise the aisles of imported wines. The scent of fresh-baked bread and rotisserie chicken waft through the air and fill my nose, while I marvel at the selection of imported cheeses.

If shopping for delicious food makes you hungry, Rustans has a reasonably priced food court and deli so that you can grab a bite after shopping.

Get the attention of one of their in house sushi-chefs. Ask for a freshly made tray of salmon maki, crab stick California rolls, or tuna maguro rolls. A variety tray can be requested fresh for about $4

2) Food Budget Options- Where to go to get local cheap eats that won't make your stomach hate you.

Street Food: Our street food scene is not for the inexperienced. Manila is not a famous street food mecca like Bangkok or Penang. Yes, cheap meats and dishes are available on the street, but the taste, quality, consistency, and sanitation are not at levels I could feel comfortable recommending. The exception to this is the prior mentioned Salcedo and Legazpi weekend markets. Those are freaking delicious.

Local Eats (Mang Inasal)- This local chain is one of my favorite places to eat in Manila. Inasal (meaning chargrilled or roasted meat) is chicken marinated with a local lime (calamansi) and a mixture of spices, then grilled over smoky coals while being continuously basted with the marinade to keep the meat juicy and outside saturated with flavor. Mang Inasal serves its chicken with the ever-present Filipino white rice and a dipping sauce of soy sauce, oil, calamansi, and hot pepper-infused vinegar. I’m drooling at the smoky, spicy, tart, and tasty memories of eating this chicken.

A Filipino success story, this chain was founded in 2003 by a 26 year old local, Edgar Sia, who eventually sold it off seven years later for $68.8 million. Regardless of my business admiration for this guy, his chicken is delicious and cheeeeaaaap! A two-piece (drumstick and thigh or breast and leg) with all-you-can-eat rice is roughly $2.

The best value in Manila. Clean, cheap, tasty, and filling. You can feast for under $3.

Casual Restaurants (El Chupacabra)- I immigrated to the US at age seven and spent much of my adult life on the West Coast. I’ve been around crispy carnitas, street-style tacos, and homemade pico since before puberty. Consuming late-night burritos “as-big-as-my-head” was a rite of passage at my university. As I traveled the world, I have come to realize that hoping to find good Mexican food anywhere outside of North America is just asking for disappointment. My first bite at El Chupacabra was on a Tinder date. Remembering the authentic flavors of carnitas pork mixed with handmade grilled corn tortilla bits hit my tongue is a more pronounced memory than the date I had that night. I consider finding a decent Mexican restaurant outside of North America as scoring twice that night. This place is the real thing.

El Chupacabra is a proper hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the heart of the Makati Red Light district called Poblacion. While the area is slowly shedding its seediness for a bit of hipster charm, expect some interesting people watching, if you choose the outdoor tables, vs. the more insulated interior seats. White-collar local Pinoys and Expats sip cheap cold beers in equal numbers here.

The street tacos are the star of the show. El Chupacabra serves this classic in its most authentic form. Basic in its simplicity, the but complex in its flavor: Griddled corn tortilla, marinated and chargrilled protein, pico de gallo salsa, generous amounts of torn cilantro, chopped onions, and half a lime. The lime being the sole deviation, where the street tacos veer from their authenticity and use local Filipino key limes (calamansi) vs. their more tart green lime cousins.

The meats are charcoal grilled to order and formidably spiced, the cilantro is fresh and abundant, so eat bite has a burst of flavor. Different homemade flavored and spiced salsas are available to add even more oomph to each bite. Each mouth-watering-grease-dripping-on-my-hands-making-me-lick-my-fingers-its-sooooo-good taco is a wallet happy ~$2, with more promotions and happy hours available daily.

3) Mid Level Casual– This is where the Manila dining scene shines. Michelin star meals at wallet friendly prices.

Our cheap street foods don’t compare to Thailand, Penang, or Vietnam. Our high-end dining costs as much as fine dining options in the US or Western Europe. However, our mid-tier restaurants have affordable value and surprisingly tasty selections. It is the intersection where price and quality meet to eat in Manila.

Ziggurats- One of the OG restaurants in Makati. Even before Poblacion became a hipster haven, Ziggurats was dishing out exotic fare from their corner spot- by exotic, I mean they serve a selection of delicious eats ranging from India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.

Kebab, souvlaki, and lamb- I can smell the cumin and grilled flavor from here. 

Admittedly, the menu is a bit overwhelming, and when I see a restaurant with a novel for a menu, it means they don’t do anything particularly well; the whole “Jack of All Trades, but a Master of None.” Ziggurats bucks that mantra and does several different cuisines equally well. With rice dishes starting at $2, curries at $5, and most entrees less than $7, you can experiment and grab a selection of savory Indian curries, robustly spiced African stews, or taste the cumin and cilantro grilled Middle Eastern kebabs. 

Mendokoro Ramenba- Regulars have normalized the 1-hour wait to get into this 21-seat ramen bar, so you have to know the taste must be worth the wait. If the Ziggurats review above overwhelmed you with choices, then Mendokoro will help steady your spinning head with a super simple, some would say minimalist menu of 12 items, 10 of them are ramen.

If you love noodle soups, Mendokoro's pork broth with grilled pork belly is a Manila must try. 

This specialization in ramen is a puff-your-chest out display of focus and dedication. The chef and staff working in the open-air kitchen are on full display in front of you. Their culinary skills laid bare in exhibition; a blatant show of their confidence and ability in making a small select number of dishes, very very very well.

For first-timers, I recommend the Shoyu ($8)with extra Chashu ($3). The extra hunks of thick slow-cooked pork are smoky and succulent compliments to the creamy savoriness of the tonkotsu (pork bone) broth. The blend of textures from the rich, thick broth, soft and tender pork, and the firm and chewy noodles are the perfect interplay consistency and flavor.

Off Menu Secret Item: Super Chashu

Din Tai Fun- This Michelin star dumpling house is a global phenomenon. "Voted by the New York Times as one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the World.”, it causes 2 hour long waits any time it opens a new location. I understand the hoopla. I was one of the people waiting in the 2-hour line when it’s first location opened in the Philippines back in 2015. I must admit the hype is well justified.

I arrived early to watch the masked white-aproned men working the dumpling assembly line in their glass fishbowl in front of the restaurant. It was mesmerizing watching the staff methodically fill each dumpling with meat and roll them with precisely 18 pleats, before gently setting them into a bamboo steamer to cook to juicy perfection. Stomach growling, watching tray after tray of these morsels get prepared, made each minute of the 2+ hour long wait excruciating.

Once we were seated, our server lifted the lid to our first bamboo tray presenting us with five plump white jewels (~$3), with broth waiting to burst at first bite. After devouring the entire plate, I had to ask myself,

Self: How does watery soup get stuffed into the dumpling wrapper?

Self: It doesn’t. It’s formed in the wrapper from solid ingredients. When heated to the precise temperature, collagen renders from the pork filling and mixes with the liquefied fat and juices to form the broth. This works by strict adherence to the Din Tai Fung exacting process: each wrapper is exactly 5g, inside each wrapper is exactly 16g of pork filling, each dumpling is formed with exactly 18 pleats. Dumpling makers are trained for 6 months and take 2 years to master getting these soupy treasures just right.

Don’t do what I did, which is shove a whole steaming dumpling into my mouth with a spoon. When you bite into a whole hot dumpling, the meat juice and liquid fats scald the entire inside of your mouth in lava hot broth. The proper way to enjoy one of these juicy dumplings is broken down by one of Din Tai Fung’s Masterchefs in this video.

Tsuta Ramen- Another multiple Michelin star award winning restaurant with a branch in Manila, Tsuta, the first ramen restaurant in the world award with the coveted star, has sought to redefine the ramen experience. Substituting any artificial components and MSG with premium ingredients like porcini mushrooms and pureed black truffles. The chef blends three separate broths (chicken stock, asari clams stock, a mixed fish stock (combination of Japanese katakuchi, mackarel, and anchovy) into proprietary ratios into a unami-bomb of a broth. Even the soy sauce (shoyu) is a custom-made blend with specific aging instructions and ingredients.

The signature Char Siu Ajitama Shoyu Soba ($12) with 4 slices of Char Siu, Ajitama (marinated soft-boiled egg), Hosaki menma (the soft head of a bamboo shoot), leeks, and truffle pureed in truffle oil was my go-to dish. Primarly, because I have an ever present love affair with all things truffle. This warm bowl of goodness did not disappoint. Earthy truffles, complex broth, and salty shoyu added layers upon layers of ass-kicking flavor. The thinly sliced pork was nowhere near the perfection the thick charsu steaks of Medokoro’s (see above review), but that is comparing against near meat perfection. The broth here is much more subtle in flavor than the robust creamy pork bone broth of other ramen joints. Take your time here. Sit back in your stool and slowly sip the broth. Truffle is a nuance back note in the flavor profile, not something that smacks you upside the head. Find the earthy flavor and roll it on your tongue. Enjoy the distinction of each of the three types of broth and savor the unique saltiness of the bespoke shoyu. The beauty in Tsuta is to revel in the delicate flavors.

Pureed truffles and a 3-part seafood broth add nuance and delicate flavor to chewy ramen noodles. 

3) Fine Dining Restaurants- Need a place to splurge? Here is where to spoil yourself.

Manila has loads of high-end dining, but admittedly, this is not my sweet spot. The mid-range restaurants were where I found the best sweet spot of flavor and price. I just didn’t see the point of living in a LCOL country like the Philippines and spending as much or more than I would spend in the US for food.

Manila Peninsula Buffet ($42 for lunch/$50 for dinner) is my exception to the above rule. The All-You-Can-Eat hotel buffet is my cheat day go-to, because the desserts here are off the charts good and I get as many of them as my fat boy mouth can fit. In addition, there is enough protein options that I can binge eat meats to easily get my price per kilo of meat down to reasonable prices.

For those not familiar, the Peninsula Hotel has been a Five Star stalwart in Manila for decades. The ginormous lobby is straight of out the Great Gatsby, framed by two sweeping staircases and opulent accents. The Bougie elite of Manila use the lobby for Instagram able snaps for weddings, birthdays, and other special occasions.

In line with the hotel’s Five-star luxury reputation, the buffet boasts a several open kitchen stations, where food is custom prepared for you. This buffet truly allows you a trip around the world, from fresh baked breads, a live sushi chef, a variety of carved meats, a Filipino area with local dishes, and the prior mentioned desserts. It is an elaborate global buffet.

Get your fill of Western cheesecakes and tiramisus and classic Filipino ube, cassava cakes, and kutsinta.

I’m not gonna lie, I’m almost a stereotype of a mainland Chinese tourist when I hit this buffet. I skip past all the filling, but cheap salads, hors d'oeuvres, and appetizers and head straight for the meaty entrees. I stack the prime rib and seared tuna steaks to teetering heights to maximize my money’s worth. The signature dishes change daily, so you’ll won’t get bored if you come here two days in a row. You’re paying $42 for a buffet, so you can imagine that this is not your average school cafeteria fare. Each gourmet farm-to-table dish uses the freshest ingredients and is prepared regularly, so each spoonful you put on your plate has been recently prepared. No dried out tough meats or caked and curdled sauces here.

Save room for desserts. I know I do. I usually make at least 3 trips for plates full of Filipino classics like: ube, macapuno, leche flan, as well as international staples like cheesecake, tiramisu, and ice cream. Desserts here are amazing and I could probably eat $42 worth of sweets alone.

*INSIDER TIPS* Go bug the sushi chef for some freshly prepared salmon sake. Seriously, get a least 3 servings of the sashimi. Ignore the filling rolls of rice and concentrate on the “so soft it’s like salmon flavored butter” slices of sashimi.

Eat Local or Eat Like an Expat?

Do you find any of these places tempting? I feel like Manila provides a decent value for the quality of food, what are you thoughts? Are the prices more or less than your home country? Discuss with me in the comments below.

PART 4 of our guide to Retiring Early In Manila and get answers to questions like:

  • What will my social life be like?
  • Can I get good beer cheap?
  • Can I really get bottles of rum for $1.25?
  • How can I stay fit living in the city?
  • What do I do about healthcare and health insurance?

About the author

Hi, That's me. I'm Marco Sison. I am a survivor of the corporate rat race. I started Nomad FIRE to show you an alternative to the stress and grind of 70-hour weeks to pay off a mortgage, student loans, and countless bills. After getting laid off in 2015, I said screw it all and retired early at 41 years old. I have traveled the last five years to over 40 countries to show you the best ways to save, invest, and live in amazing countries for 70% less cost than the US. I have been featured in: US News & World Reports, Huffington Post, MSN Money, USA Today, ABC Network, Yahoo Finance, Best Life, CW Network, Dr. Wealth, and others. [view press...]

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